What AI Can’t Replace

The Therapeutic Value of Human Interaction

Before AI, before Siri, before Alexa, there was HAL.

HAL was a central character in one of the mind-blowing, must-see films of the Boomer generation, 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL was a compassionate, empathetic, helpful, always-there-for-you computer guiding two astronauts and a team of scientists to a mission on Jupiter. That is (spoiler alert), until he seemed turned on them

The steady drumbeat of news and predictions on AI’s potential impact on our lives has me thinking a lot about HAL lately. He wasn’t just another computer from the fictional HAL 9000 series, he was a partner and true friend on a first name basis with astronauts Dave and Frank, conversing freely and casually. HAL provided psychological support as much as he kept the space mission’s complex systems running smoothly. He was the embodiment of our AI aspirations, but even in his ideal state, the film set what I believe is a blatantly mistaken vision of AI as our friend.

Let’s put aside for the moment that HAL ultimately seems to betray his human masters, sounding the alarm about putting our trust in machines with a mind of their own. That fear still rings true today, reinforced by some of the very scientists behind AI advances who claim that “Artificial intelligence raises risk of extinction.”

Rather, I’m thinking about a range of functions that AI is starting to replace and wondering how satisfied we will ultimately be with the results. For example, people are now asking ChatGPT and other AI apps to create advertising. Just last week I read about a renowned CMO, a bona fide LinkedIn superstar, who claims to be ecstatic about the machine generated campaign he’s recently developed that saved his company tens of thousands of dollars in creative fees.

I don’t believe most advertisers will share this happiness moving forward. Yes, it’s possible that AI can provide “the answer” or at least some provocative starter concepts. However, “the answer” isn’t truly “the answer” unless there is buy in from key decision makers. But without active participation in the process and the resulting absence of personal investment, it becomes difficult or impossible to secure the organization-wide buy-in needed to both launch and execute the idea.

It reminds me of a time when I was working for an ad agency pitching a major fast food account. The client’s VP of Advertising insisted on spec work to demonstrate the agency’s understanding of the business, its thought process, and a customized campaign that would further the client’s business goals.

She warned us, however, that no matter how “great” our work was, even if was the best, most creative, attention getting, persuasive campaign in the history of advertising, it would never see the light of day. In her exact words, “We won’t use it because we didn’t work on it.”

This struck me as an incredibly foolish, arrogant comment at first. But I soon realized the wisdom of her approach. For the actual work matters very little in relation to how clients feel about the work.

And to feel good about the work, it is essential to give all the key decision makers a voice in the final execution. One of the best lessons learned of my career is that as hard as it is to create truly effective work, it’s equally or even more difficult to sell that work through a large organization. It’s all a matter of perspective. There’s company culture, egos, office politics and so much more that affect final recommendations, and all of that must be addressed. If a key executive or an entire department has no role in the development of a campaign, there will likely be no buy-in.

To earn the buy-in of all the key constituencies in an organization, they all need to be actively involved in the process from day one. Big strategic or creative decisions need to be proposed, challenged, and refined through vigorous back and forth discussion. People need time to think, reflect and reconsider. And as an added bonus, there is a far better chance for the “aha moment,” if there is to be one, to arise after people from different perspectives have taken the time to grind through their individual thought processes before coming together to optimize an outcome.

I just had ChatGPT create ten headlines for my business. All serviceable, nothing brilliant. But even if one or more were “great,” would I recognize that greatness? It’s quite possible that the instant “here you go” nature of AI stacked the odds against a more enthusiastic response. Computer brains work faster than mine. Not only do I need to be actively involved in any key decision regarding my business, I still need time to sleep on it for a while.

We also need to unpack just what we are buying when we hire human beings to do work for us and what we’re missing when we rely on technology. Certainly, if you’re trying to get fit to run a marathon, for example, AI is capable of generating a personally customized, interactive plan, as described in this recent New York Times article. There is no doubt that such an AI driven app could really help people outline achievable objectives and lay out a program to keep them on track.

Still, it’s nothing like working with a coach or being in a running club. Describing how you feel to a bot can’t be as satisfying as detailing just how you felt at mile seven of your ten mile run and how you worked through the pain to pick up your pace to finish strong over the last three miles. Wouldn’t you crave the satisfaction of verbally describing your feelings and accomplishments to another human being, who then in turn provide the compassion and understanding to reinforce your grit and physical prowess?

Or if we’re buying clothes, AI can certainly take precision measurements, optimize a color palette based on our complexion and tastes, determine the best brands for the image we’re trying to project, design the perfect wardrobe for our lifestyle and ship to our homes. But it’s nothing like shopping with a friend, or even shopping alone in a brick and mortar store where the salesperson tells you how great you look in that jacket.

Society, and younger people in particular, is in the midst of a great mental health crisis caused in no small part by technology that serves to reinforce isolation and the illusion of self-sufficiency. But we humans need social, physical, in the moment contact. We need reassurance, support and empathy. We’re not going to get it from AI.

As I love to say, none of us are in the business we think we’re in – we’re all in the mental health business. Understanding business objectives and having the the needed expertise to help solve a problem is the cost of entry. We need to recognize that our co-workers, customers and clients are emotional beings. The copywriter isn’t selling copy, she’s selling a brighter future for you and your business. It’s always something more than the tangible product or service offering. At various times we need to be friends, mentors, sounding boards, teachers or personal assistants just to mention a few of the roles we play.

I don’t know about you, but I’d strongly prefer to get my “therapy” from fellow human beings who can play the right role at the right time to provide the comfort and reassurance that will never come from hardware and software.


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